At this time [AD 64] a disastrous fire occurred.
Whether it was an accident or due to the treachery of Nero is not
known (since writers have handed down both accounts), but it was
clearly the most serious and destructive fire ever to ravage Rome.
It began in the part of the Circus that borders on the Palatine and
Caelian hills. Feeding on the highly flammable merchandise there,
the fire grew rapidly. Whipped by the winds, it raced down the
length of the Circus, encountering here none of the obstructions,
such as walls that surround mansions and temple precincts, that
might have delayed the flames. Spreading quickly, it charged across
the level areas, then up the hills and back down again to destroy
the lower spots, outstripping all preventive measures by its speed.
The city was all the more vulnerable because of the narrow alleyways
and the irregular, twisting blocks of buildings that characterized
old Rome. … In addition, no one dared to fight the fire, since
anyone making an attempt was subjected to repeated threats by many
people; others were even openly throwing torches about,
claiming they had the authority to do so (whether to plunder more
freely, or because they were indeed under orders).
When the fire started, Nero was in Antium and did not
return to the city until the fire was nearing the palace he built to
connect the Palatine Hill to the Gardens of Maecenas. The fire,
however, could not be stopped before it consumed the Palatine, the
palace, and everything around it. By way of relief for the people
made homeless by the fire, Nero opened up to them the Campus
Martius, the monuments of Agrippa, and even his own gardens [on the
Vatican Hill], and erected temporary structures to house the large
numbers of homeless. Food supplies were brought upstream from Ostia
and neighboring towns, and the price of grain was lowered to three
sesterces a peck. But all of these efforts, although popular in
nature, won Nero no favor with the people, since the rumor had
surfaced that while the city was still on fire he got up on his
private stage and sang his poem “The Fall of
Troy,” noting the correspondences between the present
calamities and that ancient catastrophe.
Finally on the sixth day the fire died out at the lower
slopes of the Esquiline hill, where a wide swath of buildings had
been purposefully demolished so the advancing inferno would come up
against open field and empty sky. But before there was time for
either fear to subside or hope to return, the fire broke out again
and this time ravaged the more open quarters of the city, where the
loss of life was smaller than in the first fire, but the destruction
to temples and porticoed parks was even greater. This second blaze
aroused more suspicion because it originated in the Aemilian estates
[probably located in the Campus Martius just north of the
Capitoline] of Nero's associate, Tigellinus, and because it seemed
that Nero wanted to be famous for founding a new Rome named after
Of the fourteen regions into which Rome is divided,
four of them remained untouched by the flames and three were
completely leveled; in the remaining seven regions, scattered
remnants of buildings still stood in burnt ruin.
It would not be easy to list all the fine homes,
apartment buildings, and temples which were destroyed by this fire.
Among the losses were the some of the oldest sacred sites in Rome,
including Servius Tullius's Temple of the Moon-Goddess, the large
altar and shrine that Arcadian Evander consecrated to Hercules for
his help, the Temple of Jupiter Stator vowed by Romulus, Numa's
Regia, and the Temple of Vesta along with the Penates of the Roman
people. Also lost were treasures gained in numerous victories,
masterpieces of Greek art, and the old, original manuscripts of
great writers. As a result, even though the city rose again in such
great splendor, the older people remembered many losses which could
never be made good.
Some people noted that the fire began on July 19, the
same date of the fire the Gauls once started when they sacked the
city [in 390 BC]. Others went to the trouble of
calculating that the interval between the two fires can be divided
up into the same number of years, months, and days [454 years
equaling 418 years, 418 months, and 418 days].
The Emperor Alexander Severus [c. AD 230] placed a tax
on pimps and both male and female prostitutes, with the stipulation
that the income thus raised go not into the public treasury but
towards the cost of restoring the Theater, the Circus, the
Amphitheater, and the Stadium.
Imperial Lives, Severus Alexander
The emperor Constantius was eager to visit Rome for the
first time. [Entering the city, he was amazed by the concentration
there of astounding buildings and monuments raised there by rulers
before him.] He deliberated at length over what he might accomplish
there; in the end he decided to add something beautiful
to the appearance of the city, and had an obelisk erected in the
Circus Maximus [in 357 AD].
The Consualian Games were named for the god Consus. It
was during games to this god, being celebrated by the priests near
his altar in the Circus, that the Sabine maidens attending the games
Varro, The Latin Language
Tarquinius Priscus's first war was waged against the
Latins…. Returning with more booty than reports of the war led
people to expect, he put on games that were costlier and more
elaborate than those of earlier kings. Then for the first time the
ground was marked out for the racetrack which is now called the
Circus Maximus. Separate spaces for viewing were designated for the
patricians and the knights, on stands propped twelve feet off the
ground on wooden braces. Horses and boxers, drawn primarily from
Etruria, provided the entertainment. Subsequently, these games,
which are called both the Roman Games and the Great Games, have been
held regularly each year.
Tarquinius Priscus built the largest of the
race-tracks, the one lying between the Aventine and Palatine hills,
and was the first to erect covered seating there (until then the
spectators had stood), which consisted of benches elevated on wooden
scaffolding. He also divided the stands into thirty sections, one
designated for each tribe, so that each person watched the games
seated in his proper place.
In time this structure was to grow into
one of the most beautiful and impressive buildings in Rome. The
arena is 2,100 feet long and 400 feet wide. A trench for water, ten
feet deep and ten feet wide, has been dug around it on the two
longer sides and one of the shorter sides; behind this, stands of
three stories are built. The ones at ground level have stone seats
on a gradual incline, as in theaters; the upper stories are of wood.
The stands extending down the two long sides of the track are joined
together by stands that curve in a crescent around one of the short
sides, in the manner of an amphitheater. This yields all told a
seating area 4,800 feet long, with room for 150,000 spectators. The
remaining short side, kept uncovered, has vaulted starting-gates
which are all opened simultaneously by one rope.
On the outer side of the Circus there is another
portico, onestoried, containing shops with living-space above them.
This portico also provides spectators access to the stands, with
entrances and flights of stairs alongside each of the shops, such
that the many thousands of spectators can enter and leave without
Dionysius, Early Rome
[Rome's monuments are beyond compare] even if we don't
include among our great works of architecture the Circus Maximus
built by Caesar when dictator, 1,800 feet long and 600 feet wide,
with three acres of buildings and seats for 250,000 spectators ….
Pliny the Elder, Encyclopedia
[In 329 BC] starting gates were first built in the
Livy, History 8.20.2
The censors [in 174 BC]… contracted for building
starting gates at the Circus, and eggs for keeping track of the
[As aedile in 33 BC] Agrippa, noticing that people in
the Circus had trouble keeping track of the number of laps
completed, installed the dolphins and egg-shaped objects to display
the number of times the track had been circled in a race.
“Relax, you have arrived in time. The final
egg, signifying the chariots are running the last lap in the Circus,
has not yet been taken down.”
During festivities for the dedication of the Temple of
Venus Victrix in Pompey's second consulship [55 BC], twenty
elephants (some say seventeen) fought against African
Gaetulians armed with javelins. One of the elephants put up an
amazing fight. Unable to walk because its feet had been wounded, the
elephant crawled on its knees toward the javelin-throwers and tossed
their shields high in the air. To the delight of the spectators,
these shields cut graceful arcs in the air on their way back down,
as if thrown with artistry and not by an enraged beast. Another
astonishing spectacle was an elephant who was killed with one throw
of a javelin that plunged straight through its eye into the vital
core of its brain.
Banding together, the elephants attempted to break
through the iron fencing that enclosed them, which caused such fear
among the spectators that Caesar subsequently surrounded the arena
with a canal prior to providing a similar show during his
dictatorship [in 49 BC], a fence which was later removed by Nero to
add seating reserved for the knights. Finally, when Pompey's
elephants had given up all hope of escape, they appealed to the
crowd's mercy with uncanny gestures, lamenting their fate with a
sort of wailing. The people were so disturbed by this suffering that
they forgot all about the great general and the magnificent
entertainment he had arranged for their sake. In tears, they rose to
their feet and called down curses on Pompey, which were soon enough
Pliny the Elder, Encyclopedia
The emperor Claudius refined the Circus Maximus,
substituting marble starting-gates and gilded turning-posts for
earlier work in tufa and wood. He also provided separate seating
reserved for the Senators, who previously had to mix with the rest
of the spectators.
When the emperor Domitian celebrated the Secular Games,
on the day reserved for the races in the Circus he reduced the
number of laps for each race from seven to five in order to fit in a
Augustus himself generally watched the games from the
upper dining rooms of his friends and freedmen, as on occasion from
the Pulvinar, appearing there sometimes even with his wife and
children.… Whenever he sat in the Pulvinar, he never occupied
himself with other business, either to avoid the bad report that he
knew had circulated about his father Caesar for utilizing time at
the games for reading and replying to letters and petitions, or
because Augustus genuinely enjoyed being a spectator, a pleasure he
never denied and often openly professed.
It was customary for the emperor Marcus
Aurelius to read, hear reports, and sign documents while attending
shows at the race-track—behavior which often, it is reported, made
him the target of the people's ridicule.
Imperial Lives, Marcus Aurelius
[Epitaph:] Gaius Julius Epaphra, a fruit-seller in
front of the Pulvinar at the Circus Maximus, sets this stone up for
himself and his wife Venuleia Helena, a freedwoman of Caesar.
7496 = CIL
In your search for a lover, don't neglect the noble race-track:
The teeming stands of the Circus are rich with
Here no need for a code to signal secret thoughts,
No need for a nod and a wink to get the message
Just sit down next to your lady, there's nothing here to prevent
Sidle yourself right up and press your hip to hers;
The crowded seating, like it or not, works in your favor,
And regulations compel you to squeeze in tight and
Next, a topic of conversation: begin with something
Neighborly, delivered in public tones for all to hear.
When horses appear, look excited and quickly ask whose,
And whatever racer's her favorite, amazing ... he's
yours as well!
But when the parade is passing, with its host of ivory gods,
Make sure your loud applause reveals your devotion to
If any speck of dirt should land on the lap of your lady,
As sometimes happens, be concerned to brush it away,
And even if dirt is absent, brush it off anyway.
Any service will do to show that you really care:
If the folds of her robe should slip and touch the ground,
Gently gather them up and rescue the fabric from
Such service comes with a quick reward: if the girl permits,
Your new arrangement of cloth will give you a glimpse
of her legs.
Make sure to check behind you as well; with you on guard,
No knee from the bench above will be jabbing her
Ovid, The Art of Love
Our city is already flooded with the foreign ways of the East:
Even the man whose taste in women runs to hookers
In turbans will find them stationed outside the Circus
[Women, the poet rants, will plague you with their
A woman of lesser means will head to the Circus and race
Around the arcades to learn her future, offering her
And cranial bumps to a prophet, clucking at the ominous news.
Powerful people are fools and don't know what to wish for.]
But what about the crowd of common people? As always,
They idolize success and save their contempt for losers.
Ever since we lost the right to sell our votes
The people toss their civic cares aside; the citizen
Who once had final say over legions, the fasces, the world,
Contracts himself to the issues of ultimate concern:
Bread and Circuses.
The Roman People are kept in line by two things above
all: the grain dole and entertainment. Power rests no less upon
amusements than upon serious measures: failure in the latter results
in greater real damage, but failure at the former results in greater
The grain dole is not as effective as entertainment in
keeping the people content. Grain placates only a person at a time
and is targeted to specific individuals; spectacles reach everyone.
(Preamble to History, AD 165)
[So much for the vices of the nobility.] We now [c. AD
360] come to the idle and shiftless plebs.… They spend their entire
lives on wine, dice, brothels, parties, and the games. For such
people, the Circus Maximus is a temple, a home, an assembly ground,
and the focus of all desire.… As dawn approaches on the awaited day
of chariot racing, before the sun is even shining, they all rush in
a heedless mass to the stadium, as if engaged in a race with the
very chariots they go to watch, many of them having gone sleepless
with anxiety over the outcome of their fanatical wishes.
Gaius Appuleius Diocles, driver for the Red Team, from
Lusitanian Spain, [retired?] at age 42 years, 7 months, and 23 days.
His first race was for the White Team in AD 122; his first victory
was for the same team in AD 124. He first drove for the Greens in AD
128, and first won for the Reds in AD 131.
His career statistics: he drove chariots for 24 years
making 4,257 starts, with1,462 first place finishes, 110 of them in
the opening race after the procession. In races for which he was his
team's sole entry he came in first 1,064 times, 92 of them in the
big-money events: he won 30,000 sesterces 32 times (three times with
a six-horse team); 40,000 sesterces 28 times (twice
with a six-horse team); 50,000 sesterces 29 times (once with a
seven-horse team); and 60,000 sesterces three times. In double-entry
contests he came in first 347 times, winning 15,000 sesterces four
times with a three-horse team. In three-entry races he came in first
He came in first or placed 2,900 times, coming in
second 861 times, third 576 times and fourth once (winning 1,000
sesterces); he failed to place 1,351 times.… His career winnings
totaled 35,863,120 sesterces.… He held a lead to win 815 times, came
from behind to win 67 times, won under handicap 36 times, won in
various fashion 42 times, and took the lead down the stretch to win
502 times (overtaking the Greens 216 times, the Blues 205 times, and
the Whites 81 times). He made nine horses 100-time winners, and one
horse a 200-time winner.
5287 = CIL
Here I lie, the little Florus, a two-horse charioteer;
No sooner did I take to chariots than I tumbled to the shades.
5300 = CIL